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Save the Web from software patents

by Donald Robertson III Contributions Published on Sep 30, 2012 11:16 PM
PersonalWeb's software patent suit against Github and others threatens the freedom of the Web. In order to make sure that the Web can remain a free and accessible space for everyone, we need to rid ourselves of all the patents that threaten its viability. We need to end software patents.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, then a researcher at CERN, invented the World Wide Web as we know it. When he created it, he could have chosen a path wherein the Web would have remained under his control. Instead, he chose to share his work with the world. Thanks to that decision, the standards behind the Web are free to all. The ability to communicate and share freely via the Internet has become such an integral part of our lives that the U.N. has stated that access to the Web should be considered a human right.

In short, the Web belongs to everyone. But now and then an individual, a nation, or a company decides that this should not be the case. Today that company is PersonalWeb, a shell company from the Eastern District of Texas, which has set out on a course of patent litigation against some of the largest Internet companies in an attempt to claim the Web as their own. In December of 2011 they filed a series of suits against Amazon, Caringo, EMC, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and NetApp regarding a bevy of software patents they partially hold. They have followed this action up recently with even more lawsuits, this time against the likes of Apple, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, and Yahoo. They even accidentally sued Rackspace, a company that merely hosts Github, the company they were actually trying to assault.

For several years, now, through our campaign to end software patents, we have been warning people that a day would come when simply running a Web site could subject you to a ruinous patent lawsuit. It appears that this day has come. PersonalWeb claims that their patents cover a whole slew of functionality and technology integral to the Web. In particular, they even claim to have patents covering certain ways of sharing source code. This particular claim poses a threat to free software developers, but PersonalWeb's scatter-shot approach to filing lawsuits shows that they will go after almost anyone with a Web site.

If PersonalWeb succeeds in getting a judgment or a settlement out of these large companies, it will only increase the "market value" on these sorts of ridiculous patents. It will make it easier and more profitable to extract larger and larger payments from anyone who tries to run a Web site while having money in their bank account. It will encourage opportunistic individuals to file or buy more broad software patents in a land rush to try and lock down and seek rent on the Web.

While PersonalWeb's claimed patents are particularly onerous (the name of the examiner who granted these patents has been suggested as a sort of "Heisman" trophy of patent misfortune, an "award to best commemorate the ultimate, the outrageous, the most horrifically unacceptable patent examination performance of the current patent system"), the reality is that there are literally thousands of patents that could cover the basic tools necessary to run a modern Web site. Tim Berners-Lee actually set foot in a courtroom for the first time this year in order to defend against another patent monopolist who laid claim to the web. PersonalWeb is just the latest example of how software patents threaten freedom on the Web.

In order to make sure that the Web can remain a free and accessible space for everyone, we need to rid ourselves of all the patents that threaten its viability. We need to end software patents.

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